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Dialogue Quirks and Character Development

May 21, 2012

I’d just started working for a former boss and we were discussing something.

“Let me be honest,” I said, about to give her my unvarnished opinion about something.

“You mean you typically aren’t?”

“Huh?” I felt like one of those guys in an action movie, the ones riding the motorcycle when someone shoves a stick through the spokes.

People say odd things. But if you say “Let me be honest,” it doesn’t necessarily mean you typically lie.

Of course everyone lies sometimes. It helps make the human family stop from exploding in a fury over things that should be trivial. Don’t believe me?

The fact is, conversation–real conversation–is filled with false starts and stupidity born of divided attention, social anxiety, and disagreements about what’s important to pay attention to. (“Yes, dear.”)

And while making conversation really realistic would be boring, it’s fun and useful to work those little quirks into character conversations from time to time, especially between the sexes.

Like the commercial where the woman–an attractive thin woman, walks into the kitchen while her husband is reading the paper and says, “Honey does this make me look fat?” Without looking up, the husband, clearly not listening, says “You betcha.” (Forward to 4:50 in the clip below, if you want to watch it.)

Obviously, a novel can be carried on that kind of discussion, but conversational quirks can be illuminating and create  change of pace between particularly tense scenes.

For instance, my former boss didn’t real think I lie when I don’t say “Let me be honest,” but she was making a point about looking beyond the surface of what’s said to pick up the deeper context–and she was just giving me a hard time, something she enjoys from time to time.

The thin woman who’s asking her husband if the dress makes her look fat is masking insecurities about her body or self-worth–or just treating insecurities about something else by asking a safe question.

The husband might be a clueless dunce, or he might be someone who’s bombarded with talk for its own sake while he’s trying to read.

Either way, scenes like this can add nuance to your characters and deepen your story.

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